If you tell someone that you don’t have the power to do something, it’s hard to convince them that you can accomplish it with more power. In all my time blogging, this simple concept has been more misunderstood than any other.

Star Trek fans are familiar with the spectacle of Chief Engineer and Second Officer Montgomery Scott (Scotty) telling Captain Kirk that he ‘has to have more power’. Well, sometimes you do. Sometimes you have power, but you don’t have enough to break out of the gravitational pull. Even the best and most conscientious political observers often let their frustrations cloud their judgment of what they are observing in Washington DC. And nowhere has this clouded judgment been more pronounced than in people’s estimation of the performance of Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid.

They are leaders of the Democratic Party and Congress, but they are not dictators. They will express their opinion about the direction the caucus should go, but if they lose the argument you’ll never know they advised a different course. Their job is to usher through whatever strategy has been agreed to, and that is often a different strategy from the one they would have preferred. Oftentimes, they simply do not have the power to implement their best judgment.

When the Democrats come up against a brick wall (or when they cannot unite around a common purpose), the Republicans like to rub salt in their wounds: “Republicans, for their part, say it’s time for Democrats to acknowledge that they run Congress.” Democratic partisans often say the same thing. Yet, this is not necessarily a fair criticism. The Republicans make excellent use of the filibuster provision in the Senate, and they have the president’s veto. If the President doesn’t support a piece of legislation, it takes a united Democratic caucus and 17 Republican senators to override his veto. For this reason, the Democrats have simply lacked the power to do much in this Congress.

To be sure, if the Democrats had shown more unity, they could have accomplished more. They could have blocked a few judges. They could have stopped the FISA bill. They could, technically, have cut off funding for the occupation of Iraq. But too many critics judge the whole of the Democratic Party by what the worst of its members do.

Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid often wind up looking like dupes when they are forced to pursue a rearguard strategy. But when your right flank breaks and begins to flee, a rearguard action is the appropriate maneuver. It’s just hard to be convincing when you describe your retreat as the plan all along.

You can see the gears grinding in Pelosi’s head as she tries to navigate the Big Shitpile Bailout.

The politics of the bailout are tricky and dangerous for both political parties, particularly since it comes weeks before the presidential and congressional elections.

As a result, Pelosi (D-Calif.) has effectively sent the message that if she is going to jump off a cliff to rescue Wall Street, she wants House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and George W. Bush holding her hands when she leaps.

Or, in other words, Pelosi isn’t going to pass a bailout unless more than half of the Republican caucus votes for it. And Harry Reid sent a similar message:

In the Senate, Republicans have also lined up to oppose their president’s bill, which led Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to worry that he may not have enough Republican votes to pass the package.

“We need Republican votes to help us,” he said. “This is a Republican package and we need Republican votes.”

To get an idea of the scope of the problem, only one (anonymous) GOP member of the Senate Banking Committee is reported to support the bailout.

Reid said that his Democratic colleagues told him that as of Tuesday only one Republican on the Banking Committee could be counted on to vote for the bailout.

[Ed. note- by process of elimination, that one senator must be either Mel Martinez of Florida or Bob Bennett of Utah]

But, you ask, if the Republicans don’t support the bailout and the Democrats don’t support the bailout, then why would Reid and Pelosi be acting like they want to pass it? Here’s a clue:

The Dow Jones industrial closed down 161 points on Tuesday after a 372-point drop on Monday.

A jittery Wall Street awaits a bailout, and their jitters are contagious. The president and his economic advisers are issuing dire warnings of financial Armageddon if something is not done quickly. In this situation, with an election barely a month away, the avoidance of blame becomes of almost paramount concern. If nothing else, Bush has positioned himself to shift blame onto a slow-footed Congress if there is any dramatic decline in the fortunes of the national economy between now and election day.

Reid and Pelosi are under pressure to provide something. But the sheer size of the bailout proposal makes it of such lasting consequence that the issue cannot be treated as some football to be politically finessed in an election season. It is quite a quandary. No one wants to vote for the bailout. The Democrats certainly do not want to vote for it over nearly unanimous Republican opposition. To make it remotely palatable to the Democratic caucus they have to include provisions that make the Republicans even less inclined to do the president a solid.

And every day that the DOW Jones drops a few more hundred points makes everyone more nervous.

The trick is to try to do the right thing without getting hell for the results. That’s why you’re seeing things like this:

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said after Tuesday’s Democratic Caucus meeting that it will take 130 to 140 Republican votes to get the bill passed. “They’re going to have to take ownership,” Moran said.

“Ownership” was the word of the day Tuesday, as in, “Who’s going to own this bailout package if it fails?” or if it works and voters remain furious at seeing investment bankers on the public dole.

Rep. Moran is telling the Republicans that they will not get more than 68-78 Democratic votes for the bailout in the House. If they want the bailout, they have to step up and own the bailout. But, what’s going unsaid is that the Democrats won’t provide even those 70-80 votes unless the bill includes provisions on executive pay and homeowner relief.

Are the Democrats bluffing, or are they united? I don’t honestly know. If they’re paying attention to this morning’s Washington Post poll, they are most likely united.